Many thanks to Gina Birrer, who provided valuable contributions to this article.
The recent decision of the Supreme Court of the United States to overturn the ruling of Roe Vs Wade came as a shock to gender equality campaigners everywhere. Although a draft decision had been leaked some months beforehand, and although some had suspected for even longer before that the conservative-tilted court had the ruling in its sights, it was such a huge, cruel blow for gender equality in America, many can still scarcely believe that it has actually happened.
These shockwaves rippled all throughout the world. Even here, in Europe, where women in many countries already have strong abortion rights, the Supreme Court ruling reminded us that if we are complacent, and give power to the wrong hands, these previously strong institutions can be wiped away in the blink of an eye. At the same time, it reminded us that across the world, so much more work needs to be done.
Even if we live in a country which maintains extensive abortion rights, we must do everything we can to defend them and ensure that they are not eroded away. Even if we live in a luckier country, we must fight to ensure less fortunate women elsewhere can have the same rights that we do. Because make no mistake: without these abortion rights, true gender equality will be impossible.
What Do We Mean by Equality?
Gender equality is a simple concept: that all of us, no matter what gender we are, have the same access to resources, opportunities, rights, and protection.
But there is gender equality under law and gender equality in practice, and even in the most liberal, developed countries, there is often a vast gap between the two.
Laws may exist to protect women from discrimination in the workforce, from assault and harassment in everyday life, and to ensure equal access to healthcare and economic opportunities. But the reality for women – their lived experiences – can be completely at odds with these laws. They still suffer disproportionately from gender-based violence, they are still treated differently in the justice system, and they still face huge obstacles to achieving equal employment and pay.
Women are still discriminated against on a daily basis, and still encounter entrenched, archaic, patriarchal attitudes towards education and employment. Because of this, many can’t achieve the life and career goals they strive towards – in other words, they still suffer from inequality in practice.
In fact, many can’t even live decent lives at all. It goes even further than a career: if this discrimination degrades your mental health, if it unfairly puts you in prison, if it endangers your life, then it is in direct opposition to basic human rights.
Not only that, but minorities and women from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are disproportionately affected by this inequality. As they don’t have a safety net to protect them when they are affected by violence or discrimination, or as they attempt to forge their own path forwards, their setbacks and suffering from inequality are further amplified.
Laws may exist to maintain gender equality, but the simple fact is that women are not starting from a level playing field. Our society is geared against women, so before we can even start to maintain gender equality we need to put the tools, laws, and resources in place to give women a helping hand.
We need gender equity, which recognises this innate imbalance and asks us to put more into helping women in order to redress this imbalance. The scales already tilt away from women, and to reset them we will have to put more weight on one side than the other.
Abortion Rights Are an Important Piece of the Puzzle
Childbirth and parenting play directly into these inequalities. All too often, the burden of raising a family still falls solely on the shoulders of the mother, taking away the time, financial resources, and energy that they need to pursue a life and career for themselves. An unexpected pregnancy, too, can have a devastating effect on the life of the mother, throwing their plans into disarray and effectively shutting off avenues for employment, a fulfilling social life, a successful education, and so much more.
Abortion rights mean the right to choose when and how a woman will have their family. And in this sense, they mean the right to choose so much more than that: they give women the ability to choose how their often life course is charted and the ability to follow their own dreams.
Abortion rights are the right to choose when and how they participate in the workforce, the level of education they want to attain, and the goals they look to reach towards. They are the right to lead healthy and rewarding lives, the right to be free from discrimination, and the right to not be mistreated, abused, ostracized, or even imprisoned for situations and circumstances that are beyond their control.
Without robust abortion rights for women and mothers, inequality is deepened further, and human rights are violated. No gender equality can ever be achieved without a woman’s right to choose.
Systemic Change and Prosperity: A Positive Loop
In an ideal world, abortion wouldn’t even be an issue. There would be no misogynistic attitudes towards motherhood and a woman’s place in society, there would be no sexual assault, men would equally shoulder the burden of birth control, and parenting would be a task equally shared between both parties, and therefore wouldn’t place undue limitations on the lives of one gender over another.
But we don’t live in an ideal world. Women still face the challenges of inequality largely alone, which means they need they need the power, and the bodily autonomy, to successfully tackle these challenges.
Abortion rights are an inextricable aspect of bodily autonomy, and a crucial step towards self-empowerment for women. And as a step towards self-empowerment, and a step towards equality, abortion rights play a big role in improving the prosperity, happiness, and economic success of woman across the globe. It’s easy to see why: as we explained earlier, it allows both self-reliance and a greater ability to attain the education, career, and life goals that they want.
This becomes a positive loop. Interestingly, countries with robust abortion rights for women often have the lowest rate of abortions. This is because the systemic change – and improvements to equality – that abortion control brings also improves prosperity and socioeconomic markers across the country. Women are empowered, and once empowered and in control of their own lives, in a society that respects them and treats them as equals, move closer to this ideal world where unplanned or unwanted pregnancies happen far less often.
Everyone Benefits from Gender Equality
In a patriarchal society, where simply being a man comes with a world of privileges, it’s difficult to make men understand why they should fight for gender equality, let alone abortion rights. They already have a good life – why do they need that to change?
But joining the fight isn’t just about selflessly standing by our sisters. Reproductive rights are a human right, of course, and must always be defended. But what many men don’t understand is that a more equal world – one that necessarily includes abortion rights, as we’ve just argued – is actually better for them, too.
As just one example, the economic prosperity that stems from equality means better working and living conditions for society as a whole, men included. Having more women alongside men in the workforce, working as equals, enables everyone to push for more financial security, better wages, and improvements that both sexes can profit from.
At the same time, the process of attaining gender equality naturally forces a change in mindset across all levels of society. This more equitable mindset is one that, in turn, reduces the effect of other societal problems, such as racial discrimination, toxic masculinity, gender-based violence, and even violence in general. As equality dissolves the outdated notions of innate differences, of notions of who is “better” or “worse”, everyone gains the freedom to express themselves the way they see fit, to not have to conform to stereotypes, and in the long run, to find happiness in a greater sense of self.
Finally, the ability for women to dictate their own reproductive decisions leads to vastly better outcomes for children, too. Fewer children will be born into unstable financial or life situations, and parents will be able to provide better education, healthcare, food, and stability for all of their children. In short, abortion rights, and therefore gender equality, will give the next generation a much better life.